What Affirmative Action and Diversity and Inclusion Mean to Workers

What's the difference between affirmative action and diversity and inclusion when applied to the workplace? If you're in the market for a new job or looking for career advancement, knowing the answer can help you target employers with the most progressive recruitment and retention policies.

Affirmative Action vs. Diversity

"'Affirmative action' means if you come to the party, you can get in the door," says Patti DeRosa, president of Randolph, Massachusetts-based ChangeWorks Consulting. "But it doesn't help you once you're inside. 'Diversity and inclusion' is what happens once you're inside the door."

Tony Simmons, president of Simmons Associates, a New Hope, Pennsylvania, human resources firm, explains it this way: "Affirmative action is a legally mandated process that grew out of the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) laws of the '60s. Affirmative action ensures that traditionally underrepresented groups have full opportunities for consideration for jobs and promotions."

But programs that promote diversity are completely voluntary. "It's not a legal process; it's an internal policy," Simmons says. "It's about a company asking itself, 'How do we create an environment where as many people as possible can be successful?'"

Success involves "working together, communication and helping all kinds of people move through the system and reach their potential," says Simmons. "'Inclusion' is as important as 'diversity.'"

What It All Means to Workers

For job seekers, the implications are clear: An employer that follows affirmative-action laws to the letter may not necessarily do much to promote diversity and inclusion.

"Affirmative action is really just numbers -- how many people do I have and where?" Simmons says. "Managers with that mind-set can feel good and think their job is done. But if you talk to people of color, people with disabilities, people who are older, you realize they care more than just about getting a job. They're as concerned as everyone else about opportunities, assignments that give exposure, meeting people who can help their careers."

Still, says DeRosa, a company can't be diverse and inclusive unless it first deals with affirmative action. "It's all about taking affirmative, meaning positive, action, then working to get the results you want," she explains. Simmons urges job seekers to look for evidence that a company takes diversity and inclusion seriously. "If I'm in the market for work, I want to see what diversity and inclusion means to a company," he says. One quick way is through a firm's Web site. Look for specific information: Are there diversity councils or affinity groups for minorities?

The experts also recommend examining photos to see if the workforce looks diverse. During an interview, ask direct questions about opportunities for advancement.

Simma Lieberman, a Berkeley-based management consultant who focuses on diversity and inclusion, suggests a tour can help you assess how diverse a company really is. "Do people look like you?" she asks. "Are they throughout the company or just at lower levels? And pay attention to the caafeteria. Do different group seat together, or are they separate?"

But Lieberman cautions that diversity takes many forms, not all of them visible.

"White men can be diverse," she says. "A white man of 60 thinks different from a white man of 20. And two white men of the same age from different parts of the country think differently, too."

Quota Confusion

DeRosa notes one common misconception about affirmative action -- that companies have quotas. In fact, most organizations handle affirmative action by setting hiring targets instead. They create reasonable goals, DeRosa says, "because they want the best people, and the way to get them is to go after them."

Debora Bloom, president of Boston's Debora Bloom Associates, says federal affirmative-action laws arose when equal-opportunity laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, gender, age and physical disability were not heeded. States and municipalities followed, expanding equal opportunity to include sexual orientation, gender expression and veteran status. Diversity, she explains, encompasses recruitment strategy and training, performance management, retention and mentoring.

"A lot of times, people are just assigned to handle affirmative action," says DeRosa. "They do it by rote." While she believes most companies are concerned about both affirmative action and diversity and inclusion, the best companies "care about what happens after they hire the people they sought out."

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